Focus schools go under the magnifying glass

<p>Fourth-graders at McNary Elementary School sit down for lunch in Feb. 2011, in Umatilla.</p>

Administrators from three local elementary schools deemed either priority or focus schools earlier this month spent last week learning what the designation means for the coming school year.

The Oregon Department of Education announced Umatilla’s McNary Heights as a priority school alongside focus schools Irrigon Elementary and Hermiston’s West Park Elementary. A priority school is defined as the bottom 5 percent of high-poverty schools in the state and is identified as most in need of assistance in turning around student achievement. A focus school is in the bottom 15 percent of high-poverty schools and is facing challenges closing the achievement gap.

The classifications are part of the No Child Left Behind waiver and are a new form of accountability replacing the Annual Yearly Progress standards, said Wade Smith, Hermiston School District interim superintendent.

“ODE is working on support mechanisms and trying to put some meat on the bone of what this means,” Smith said. “They are taking the No Child Left Behind waiver, which is a 300-plus page document, and looking at what specifically does it mean.”

The 2012-2013 school year will serve as a planning year and the next three will be implementation years at priority and focus schools, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

However, Umatilla School District Superintendent Heidi Sipe said McNary Heights is using common core curriculum, which is not what the state based its evaluation on when making the priority, focus and model school designations.

“McNary is in a unique situation, it was not placed as a priority school based on data for what we’re teaching,” Sipe said. “We are already using common core standards and they used Oregon standards. It’s comparing apples and oranges.”

Common core standards were voluntarily adopted by Oregon in 2010 to replace the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. The OAKS assessment will remain until it is fully replaced by the standards in 2014-2015, according to the department of education. Common core standards are designed to make sure all students are college- and career-ready in literacy and math by the end of high school.

Had McNary been measured based on the common core standards, Sipe said it would not have been rated as a priority school. The school will receive additional support and funding, which Sipe is happy to have available.

“We will have an instructional coach in the district and that’s always a great resource. We can always use another set of eyes in the classrooms,” Sipe said.

Umatilla’s instructional coach is Tony Lampkin, Hermiston’s is Mark Burrows and Irrigon’s is James Sims. All of the coaches are paid for working eight hours per week and paid for by the Oregon Department of Education. Sipe said the coaches will look at student data and how that corresponds to classroom instruction.

“For example, if data show students need fluency building, the coach will give teachers ideas on how to incorporate fluency building into their instruction each day,” Sipe said.

Smith said things will be business as usual at West Park Elementary and many of the problems are already being addressed by the district.

“It was a great affirmation at the meeting that the suggestions are things we’re already doing,” Smith said. However, success will take time through implementing common core standards and professional development programs for staff, he said.

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Contact Anna Willard at awillard@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4536.

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